This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E. & J. Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wine and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa, we want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments.
Interested in trying some of the wine brands discussed on “Wine 101”? Follow the link in each episode description to purchase featured wines or browse our full portfolio at TheBarrelRoom.com. Cheers, and all the best.
English wines often get a bad rap in comparison to their European counterparts. And while England’s still wines have not yet taken off, the country has proven to be a great producer of sparkling wine throughout its history.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the points in history that made England a perfect spot for producing bubbly. From a single invention in the 1600s that helped the sparkling wine industry thrive, to climate change’s impact on English viticulture throughout the region’s history, centuries of harvest have led to English sparkling wine’s recent popularity in the American market.
Tune in to Episode 12 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about sparkling wine from across the pond.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and please tell me I’m not alone in thinking that every mechanical pencil across the board has terrible, terrible erasers. Just terrible.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to episode 12 of VinePair’s “Wine 101,” podcast. This is the bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director at VinePair, and how are you doing?
So today, we are going to dip into England. Yeah, English wine — specifically English sparkling wine. It’s happening. It’s going to keep happening. It was happening. It’s happening again. Let’s just clear this all up.
When one says “English wine,” I’m sure it can be a little too confusing. Some of you out there listening might say, “Oh, cool, I’ve heard about English wine. Let’s talk about it.” But I would bet there’s a lot of you out there that are like, “Wait a second, English wine? Do the English make wine?” If you listen to “Wine 101,” you know the English and their relationship with wine was never so much on the production side as it was on the being-imported-into-England-and-drinking-a-lot-of-it side. You had their relationship to France, you had their relationship to Portugal, Madeira, and all these places. Also, with the might of the British Navy, you had a lot being distributed throughout the colonies.
Well, England did and does make wine. Today, it’s primarily sparkling wine, which we’ll get into in a second. The Roman invasion of England is a big moment in the history of the British Isles. Of course, if Romans are around, wine is absolutely around, and there are a lot of archeological digs of Roman sites in England that show evidence of winemaking. But there’s even evidence of winemaking from the third ice age; they found grape seeds and stuff like that. But that has nothing to do with today. It’s just a very interesting thing to know. Other things to know, for example, there is a tribe or a colony called the Belgae and they were originally from Gaul. When the Romans invaded Gaul, they fled and made their way to England. They brought with them their winemaking skills from that part of the world, which is now France.
As you’re looking at the history of England, you get to the 12th and 13th centuries, and this is where there was a golden age of winemaking where wine was being grown and made from the southern part of England all the way up to Yorkshire, which is in the northern part of the country near Scotland. But after the 13th century, this is where we set up why we don’t know much about English wine. It’s because climate change happened, and there was a movement of a certain jet stream and the weather in England became not ideal for wine. Wine continued to be made. Vines were grown, but it was not a priority for the people of England. And this is when England starts looking elsewhere for wine, and they end up in Gascony, in southwest France, and then Bordeaux, and everything kind of flows from there. Not only did a cooling of the country because of climate change contribute to this, but also the Black Death was pretty bad and people were not necessarily as worried about wine as they were about life and living and stuff like that. This also created a major labor shortage, so everything had to be kind of consolidated at some point in history.
When the 20th century rolled around, this is what began the revival of viticulture in the British Isles, mostly in England. There is some wine being made in Wales and in Scotland, but it’s primarily in England, and this begins in the mid-’40s. This revival, this sort of excitement, goes through to the ‘90s. Now, that’s a lot. There are a lot of decades there, and the reputation of English wine was very kind of thin and acidic. A lot of the wines are made mostly from grapes like Bacchus and Ortega. These were cross-bred varieties, mainly from the grape Müller-Thurgau that made thin, neutral, sometimes sweet wines. But through the ‘90s, something really interesting started happening in England, especially in the southern part of England. Climate change happened again. But this time, instead of things cooling down, things started to warm up. Obviously, that was bad for a lot of things. But oddly enough, it is beneficial to the wine industry of England and helps viticulture. As things started warming up, new vines were being planted. This time, we’re seeing the Champagne varieties. We’re seeing Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. There are other varieties being grown, but those are starting to become the focus of everything because this is what’s so unique about this part of the world. England was warming up, but it’s traditionally a cool environment. So even though it is warming up, it’s not warming up like crazy. They are still producing high-acid wine, but that’s the kind of wine you need to make great sparkling wine.
So England is beginning to become a country known primarily for sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. What’s really cool is that the majority of this action and activity of the winemaking industry of England is in the southeast. If you look at a map of all the counties of England, in the southeast, you see Greater London. The wine regions are east, north, and south of London. So you have Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex County, which is just northeast of London. Then, south of London, you have Kent, and then west of Kent, you have a county called Surrey. Below that, you have the large county of Sussex, which is split up into East and West Sussex. Those are primarily the wine-growing, wine-producing regions of England. Yes, there are vineyards in other places. There are some things happening in Cornwall, I believe, in the southwest. But this is what we’re going to see on the American market.
What’s really neat about this is that earlier we were talking about all the archeology and finding these very old remnants of winemaking by humans. This is the area where they found a lot of this stuff. I just find it very fascinating. This country couldn’t make wine, then it could make wine, then it couldn’t make wine, and now it’s making wine again. This area of England has changed climatically throughout the years and stopped and started the wine industry. I just find that fascinating.
Even though the country has well over 500 wineries, 80 percent of all of those wineries are located in that area, with most of it being in the south. North of London, when you get into the Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex areas, that’s only about a small percent. Some people say 5 or 12 percent of the wine is made there. It’s all basically made down in the larger counties. To give you a sense of that, it’s in those counties that we see the wines that you’re going to see on the American market — wineries that can make enough wine for international distribution. I want to mention these winemakers because you’re going to see them on shelves, and you should definitely check them out. They’re not inexpensive; they start at about $30 to $40, but they’re worth it because the balance, the character, and the quality is there. And this is giving you a taste of what’s to come.
Now, the majority of the sparkling wine being made in England is made from the three Champagne grapes, which I mentioned earlier. I don’t know if they’re using other varieties; they won’t list them on their labels or anything, but they do use the French nomenclature for their wines. Like, Blanc de Blancs is Chardonnay, Blanc de Noir, and all that. So that’s kind of cool. You’re looking at an English wine label, but you’re able to understand Blanc de Blancs, because that’s how you see it on Champagne. One bottle you’ll see around is called Chapel Down, and that is from Kent, the county that is just southeast of London. The thing about Kent is the limestone and the soils, and limestone is very awesome for grapevines, and there’s a specific kind of limestone called Kimmeridgian that’s famous in the Champagne region. So that’s why it’s happening here as well. The sparkling wines that come out of Kent — specifically with Chapel Down — have a nice mineral note. They’re very apple-y and very crisp.
To give you a sense of how exciting this area is, Taittinger Champagne House has purchased land outside the village of Kent. So the Champagne people are looking there going, “Oh, this could be very cool.” So it’s definitely something to check out or keep your eye on. South of Kent is that large county, Sussex, that’s literally divided into east and west. This is where you have two wineries that you’re going to see a lot on the American market: One is called Ridgeview, and another one is called Nyetimber. The Champagne houses are looking at Kent, but Sussex is a very exciting, very popular, and up-and-coming region. It is the most southern-facing of the regions. I actually had the opportunity to go to this place and go to one of the wineries there. It’s really awesome to see vineyards in England and then drink the wines. The thing is that they’re still high on the minerality, and they’re bright, they’re clean, they’re crisp, they’re minerally, they’re refreshing. The bubbles are so great. Some of the wines that you get in the southern part, like in Sussex, have a little bit more depth to them than they will up in Kent. But they’re unique in themselves.
When it comes to the other areas, we just don’t see the wines on our market yet. There’s a lot of small wine production happening in England, and that’s really great because that’s how it all begins, right? Then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger from there. There are some very old wineries in other counties, like from the 1950s, that are still there. They’re just not coming to the United States, so we shouldn’t really talk about them and get everybody confused. So if you start with these three, you can really get a sense of this area.
One thing to know about England is that it does not have an appellation system; it does have a PDO and PGI designation. Now, if you don’t know what those acronyms mean, just go back to my appellations episode. I get all into that. It’s almost as broad as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). England is its own PDO basically, and you have English Wine, which is known as a more focused wine. Then you have English Regional, which is a larger, less restrictive way of making wine. But the thing is, English Wine, which is the top tier, if you will, is not as strict. Really what it comes down to is that the grapes need to be made in a designated area with prescribed winemaking methods. But it really is about the grapes coming from England more than anything else. So, the history and the modern times of wine in England is kind of brief, just because it doesn’t have the same intensity as France or Italy or Spain and the history that’s connected to the vine like those countries have.
Something about England is very important in wine, and it happens to be very important for glass. It’s just so interesting that the wine that England is making the best of is sparkling wine. We did the Champagne episode, but I couldn’t go into the history. What’s very cool is the English were the ones that created the bottle strength that could hold the pressure of sparkling wine. In the early 1600s, there was a man by the name of Sir Kenelm Digby, and this guy was an eccentric dude. He was into alchemy, and he was into astrology, which is whatever, it’s just what he did with it. Somebody is quoted as saying that this guy is “the very Pliny of our age for lying.” I won’t get into all of it, but one thing is just wild. He created this thing called powder of sympathy, and it’s this homeopathic astrological remedy, where if you’re injured, you put powder on the thing that injured you. I don’t know, guys. It’s crazy. One thing this guy did was own a glass workshop in the early 1600s. There, he created a brownish-green glass strong enough to hold sparkling wine. I don’t know the crazy ratios, but he increased the ratio of sand to pot ash and limestone, creating a stronger bottle. This is the bottle that helped the sparkling wine industry thrive. So you see the connections are all there. It’s kind of cool, right?
England makes sparkling wine, and they invented the bottle to put the wine in. I like this full-circle stuff. The connections are so great. Even though England doesn’t have a deep history of wine like other parts of Europe, it has that one deep connection that’s so important for its legacy going forward. It’s awesome.
That’s English sparkling wine for you guys. English still wine is not really a thing right now. Maybe one day it will be, but for now, go out and try some of those winemakers that I mentioned.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.